Writing

Invisible Evil

 
The capstone of the St. John’s College academic curriculum is the senior essay. The culmination of four years of reading and conversation, and a month or more of writing, the senior essay is as much an essay on your selected text as it a reflection of your personal journey at SJC.
 
For the past year and a half John Milton and ‘Paradise Lost’ have been rattling around inside my head. It started with a simple question: why does a writer of Milton’s caliber doubt himself?
 
After reading and rereading the poem, page upon page of journaling and reflection, and countless conversations, this is the resultant essay. It explores the power of language, deception and the importance of authorial intent in ‘Paradise Lost’.
 
 

Rallentando

This is a piece I wrote in February of 2015. With help from some friends I rewrote a few parts, gave it some polish and found it a name. It was originally published in Volume 9. No. 2 of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. I hope you enjoy.

Two cars were parked side by side in the drive of a quaint off-white house in a neighborhood lined by young oak trees. A flagstone walk led to a front door, still ajar, painted a welcoming shade of red. Over the threshold a single ordered pair of shoes lay on a mat beside the door.

Droplets from the faucet plinked into the metal bowl of the kitchen sink, each one ringing out with a hollow ping. Curtains at the windows fluttered in a lazy dance upon the breeze, streetlights blinking into existence as the evening wore on. A crème brûlée toasted to a flawless burnt orange rested on a serving dish beside the sink.

Scattered across a dining room table were the remnants of place settings for two, silverware and ornamental porcelain. The shards of a bottle along the floor, wine splashed across the wall, staining the rug below a deep blood red.

Soothing piano notes were floating out from the speakers of an old fashioned record player spinning in the sitting room corner. The last coals of a fire smoldered in the fireplace.

Fragments of a vase lay on the floor beside an accent table in the hallway, trampled roses strewn about, broken stems and crushed petals. The frame of a portrait was split having been jarred from the wall, cracks spidering through the glass pane.

Orange and lavender scents mixed with the roses in the air in the doorway into a spacious bedroom. On a nightstand a square box wrapped in cream-colored paper adorned with pale blue silk ribbon lay abandoned.

The tan covers and pillows on an ornate oak bed were still in perfect place, folded and tucked just so. A burgundy stain spread over the bedding, dripping onto the carpet beneath the bed.

From the adjoined bathroom steam bellowed into the air, the wall mirror fogged over, the shower still running. The steam was blown away by the evening breeze from the open bedroom window.

Streaks of red swirled around and into the drain of the shower.

Six Years: Six Birthdays

I celebrated celebrated my birthday a week and a half ago. Thanks to some greats cousins and their friends here in Texas it was the complete opposite of what I expected.

I’ve had my share of disappointing birthdays.

Six birthdays passed while in the Navy. Some of them were great, some of them were good and some of them were terrible. Here are my Navy birthdays:

2008: I left boot camp on February 15th and went straight to Corry Station in Pensacola, FL. Since it was a training command what we were allowed to do was still limited until we went through all of our initial training and completed each of three liberty phases.

Phase 1 was the most restrictive: unable to wear civilian clothes, unable to leave the base and in your barracks room by 9:45 PM (11:45 on the weekends). Phase 2 you were allowed to wear civilian clothes and leave the base, but the curfew remained in effect. Phase 3 allowed for weekend liberty: after duty for the day (ie class) was completed you could leave base and not have to return until Sunday night, so long as we stayed within 300 miles of the base.

My birthday fell square in the middle of phase 1, a week after I arrived at Corry. I didn’t know anyone and wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, I couldn’t even wear what I wanted that day. Easily the worst birthday I’ve ever had.

2009: This is the birthday I do not remember. Looking at my Facebook eleven people wished me happy birthday. Granted Facebook wasn’t as ubiquitous in 2009. I was in Hawaii and still living in the barracks. If I were to hazard a guess I can assume I played video games and maybe went out to eat at Chili’s. That’s only a guess.

2010: The 21st birthday. No, I did not do anything crazy. My friends and I went to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Waikiki and I had one drink. Something tropical, they gave me the cup. That cup is still kicking around somewhere. It was just an overall good birthday with good friends.

2011: My last birthday in Hawaii. I may have lied about 2009 being the only one I can’t recall because I don’t remember this one either. I was in my townhouse but I don’t know if we did anything or not. The beginning of 2011 was hectic for me between large family vacation, major car problems and prep for my surgery in April. Best guess would again be video games and food.

2012: First birthday away from Hawaii and first with family in 4 years. I drove up to Maryland from Virginia Beach to meet my friend Lisa and from there we headed north to New Hampshire. This birthday would be a mix of new and old: dinner at Chili’s with the family, Lisa and my newest (at the time, we had only talked a handful of times before) friend Tiffany. Traditional cheesecake, which for my family means nothing fancy instead made from a box mix. It was the best birthday I had had in a long time.

2013: I don’t exactly remember this birthday. I know who it was spent with (I assume actually) but since it was on a Saturday I can’t be too sure. The one thing I do remember is Troy claiming he would throw me a party and not following through with it. So where I actually was and what I was doing is sort of a mystery to me. If I did anything I know who it would have been with, so I guess that’s what counts.

2014: My most recent birthday (more of a birthday weekend) while not in the Navy was my first outside the Navy so I am including it anyways. I moved to Texas at the beginning of February and didn’t have most of my belongings and didn’t really know anyone. Thankfully two of my cousins, each of whom I hadn’t seen in years, about 20 years for one and about 14 years for the other, live a few exits down the highway from me. They made it their mission to have a great birthday weekend. They succeeded, with some advice and traditions relayed to them from my mom.

Those are my birthdays, the ones I can remember anyways. Funny how that goes sometimes. They’re just another day half the time. It all depends on who you have around.

A New Look At Valentine’s Day

I have never been one to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I did as a kid in grade school, exchanging Valentines with classmates, but as I grew up I my desire dwindled. As my cynicism grew along came a dislike for such a “fake” holiday, one driven my Hallmark and florists alike.

It is a fake holiday.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be special. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a day to celebrate a loved one, an enduring relationship or send someone an unexpected gift.

No you don’t need a holiday to celebrate love. You don’t need to block out a day to go out for a fancy dinner, to spend money on gifts and flowers or create an extravagant display of your affection. You don’t need a holiday to tell someone how much they mean to you.

You don’t need a holiday to say “I love you.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a holiday to celebrate love. Yes, Valentine’s Day is a commercial holiday driven by huge expectations and the one emotion that motivates everyone. But what holiday isn’t commercial in today’s society? Holiday decorations appear on shelves months before hand. Billions of dollars are spent in preparation for a single day.

Instead of saying “Valentine’s is stupid” why not just go with it? I’m not saying you have to embrace it. I’m not saying you even have to celebrate it. Just don’t ruin it for anyone else.

The one thing most people want out of life is to be happy. If celebrating Valentine’s makes someone happy, who are you to ruin that for them? I’ve said it before: don’t be the asshole in someone else’s story. Nobody likes those characters. Most of them could do with a good punch in the nose.

Don’t feel like you have to do something for Valentine’s Day because “it’s expected of you.” If it’s expected of you because the calendar says so then you should take a serious look at whatever relationship you’re trying to cultivate. I’m not saying you shouldn’t celebrate because it’s there, but you shouldn’t just because it’s on a calendar. Celebrating Valentine’s Day as a couple should just that, a decision made as a couple. Communication is key in anything. If you don’t talk about what you expect of Valentine’s Day then don’t be surprised by what you may or may not receive.

Another note about expectations. Valentine’s Day is not a woman’s holiday. It is a celebration of love. If you, as a woman, are expecting your man, or any man for that matter, to go the extra mile for you then you had better be prepared to reciprocate in kind. It’s not about “It’s Valentine’s Day so he had better get me something special.” That’s not love. That’s being self centered.

Whether you celebrate it or not is up to you. How you celebrate is up to you. My sister and her husband don’t buy gifts for Valentine’s Day. Instead they donate to causes in each other’s name.

Personally I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day that often. It depends on the circumstances.

Tiffany Roses

That doesn’t stop me from taking advantage of it to celebrate someone either.
(Or from buying discount Sweet Tart Hearts)

Consumerism Madness

I do not participate in Black Friday shopping. Only twice have I ever left my home before the afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving. Both times I was not buying anything for myself, nor was I Christmas shopping for others. On both occasions I was accompanying someone else: one a friend camping out for most of the night for a laptop, the other did something similar for a television. In essence they were camping out for vouchers for said products, and both of them got them.

There is nothing wrong with camping out for products. I have done it before, granted the only reason I did it was because I was bored. But things like iPhones and new gaming consoles have enthusiasts lining up for hours. People even break out the sleeping bags for movies: there were people camping out for Star Wars: Episode I (see how that turned out for them!).

There is something wrong with trampling people to death to get into a store, shooting someone over a parking space and starting fights over some toy in a department store.

Every year there are stories similar to the above, always revolving around Black Friday. For the past decade Black Friday sales have been creeping further and further forward. Previously they started during normal shopping hours. Then it was 6 A.M, then 4 A.M, then midnight. This year it was 8 P.M. on Thanksgiving. Next year will probably be 6 P.M. and who knows the year after.

I did go out today, but not for some insane sale but because there was some shopping to be done. It was not at four in the morning, half awake and stumbling into the store hoping to score some swag, but instead at three in the afternoon. All the while I kept thinking of past reasons why I don’t deal with Black Friday and some things about shopping that have always been on my mind.

1) Think hard before you spend your (or your spouses) hard-earned money on a sale.

In America it seems to be it’s not how much you spend, but it’s all about how much you save: “Check it out! I can go buy this toaster for 75% off!” “But that’s $50 for a toaster.” “It’s an amazing deal!”

That exchange seems absurd but many of the deals you see on Black Friday are similar. Another could go along the lines of this: “Oh man, a 32 inch LED HD TV for $150!” “Do you really need a 32 inch TV? Where are you going to put it?” “How can I pass it up? It’s so cheap!” “I bet it’s cheap because it’s made by the same no-name company that made that $200 toaster you just bought.”

Brand names are “brand name” for a reason. I’m pretty confidant in saying that someone wouldn’t go buy an expensive television made by some company they’ve never heard of before now. But make it super cheap and liable to crap out in a year or two and you’ve got yourself a bargain. I’ve always been curious what the markup is.

2) It’s not going to kill you to walk.

Time and time again I end up frustrated in a parking lot not because I can’t find a space. Instead this annoyance often stems from being stuck behind the person waiting five minutes for someone to pack their purchases in their car and leave. In the time it takes you to wait for that spot, then park, I could have found a spot much further away and still be in the store. Same thing goes for circling the parking lot looking for that one spot that’s only six spaces away from the door. Walking from the end of the parking lot is not going to kill you. You walk through the store once you’re in there anyways.

3) It’s not the employee’s fault they’re out of stock.

If you think you’re the only one who got it in their head to wait outside for seventeen hours to buy that monstrous television for $800 dollars off, think again. Black Friday sales happen across the nation, all 3.7 million square miles of it. There are only so many of those TVs allotted to your region, then to that particular store you decided to grace with your presence. There aren’t gremlins hiding the back stealing all the TV’s just to spite you. Nor do those gremlins work for the employee trying to keep order by handing out vouchers. Screaming at them isn’t going to make a TV appear.

4) Have fun.

If you go out shopping at ludicrous hours, dealing with thousands of impatient, grumpy people, on the hunt for delicious deals you better be having fun. I have family that makes it a tradition to go shopping on Black Friday. I think they’re insane. The reason I think this is because I have nearly been run over by some psychotic woman trying to bull her way through a line of people. But, they have fun. If you’re not having fun just go home, your angry yelling and shoving is not helping.

5) Don’t blame the stores for making employees work.

During this time a year, more often in recent years due to the spread of social media, people often complain about stores making employees work on holidays or coming in at crazy hours. Sometimes they do force people to work, this is true. Other times though people volunteer to work those hours. Why? Money, dear boy. Working on holidays is often time and a half, or double, sometimes triple depending on if they’re a full time employee who already reached their hours. If it’s food service it’s about the tips. Working on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years Eve often yields amazing tips. I know from personal experience. Yes there is some bad for making people work, but some people volunteer. For some people it pays the bills during the holidays when money is tight.

6) Enjoy the holidays and be thankful others enjoy them as well.

Whether you’re someone who braves crowds or someone who barricades themselves on the couch, enjoy what you do. That goes for letting others enjoy what they do as well. Don’t tell someone they’re stupid for doing something or that they’re a party pooper. Do I think my family is nuts for going shopping on Black Friday? Sure. But do I let it deter me from thinking they’re a blast to be around? No. I’m glad they’re enjoying their holidays how they choose. Maybe some year they’ll convince me to go shopping. I doubt it. But you can’t ever rule anything out.

Musical Cycles

I often go through what I call “cycles” in listening to music. Anyone who gets to know me or is around me for any decent amount of time find themselves exposed to my broad taste in music. There are certain things I will say flat out that I do not like, the most prominent being screamo in metal/punk. Even then I do find exceptions for things I dislike. I’m willing to give most anything a try.

Unless you share my musical sensibilities, being around me will probably diminish your appreciation for what I like. This is because I have a tendency become stuck in loops. If I find a song or, more often, an artist I love I will listen non-stop, all the time. So you may go somewhere with me and hear a particular band on my iPod. You may ask to turn it up, since I try to be considerate and turn the audio down in cars when other people are riding with me.

Now a few weeks go by and we’re off somewhere again, out to eat or maybe to a movie. Chances are good the same band is playing again. It’s what I do.

I love listening to music, to the point where the only tattoo I have is dedicated to music and reads: “Music is what emotion sounds like.” which is something I 100% believe. And when I love a band I want to hear it all the time. I understand not everyone is like this but it’s the way I am wired.

Those same bands/artists will play in my car, around the home, at work, often while running (unless it is not “running music” but even then, sometimes). Everywhere I go.

Constant exposure to an artist will sometimes ruin them for someone. Not for me. I love hearing the same songs over and over again because I get to know every facet. There was a game of sorts on iPods several years ago where it would play random snippets of songs from your music and you had to pick what song it was. I don’t think I ever missed one. Granted I never played with it much, I was listening to music instead.

A singular artist or album will receive constant play until I find someone new or on a whim decide to play something else. 90% of the time “something else” is a return to favorite artists, which is dominated by Muse. On many occasions listening to them will last for weeks, often months: Twenty One Pilots, a band I had never heard of, opened for Fall Out Boy in the beginning of September. I listened to them for two months straight.

That’s not even close to the longest cycle I’ve been caught in. When My Chemical Romance released their final album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, in November 2010 I believe I listened to that album for eight months. That’s not even my favorite album by them.

More examples could follow but I think you get the idea. Nor do I want it to change. I love my musical loops, otherwise I wouldn’t listen to music the way I do.

I am not inconsiderate and I do recognize that this would drive many people crazy. I do my best to change it up when other people are with me, especially for long drives. The moment everyone else has left the car chances are high my iPod will return to what was playing before.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank You For Your Service

Around the world today is known as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day and marks the 95th anniversary of the end of World War I. In the United States it was celebrated as Armistice Day until Congress approved a change to Veteran’s Day in 1954, in recognition of all US military veterans.

The other US holiday in recognition of military service is Memorial Day. While both serve to recognize military service, there is a distinct difference. Veteran’s Day honors all US veterans while Memorial Day is in honor of those who have laid down their life while in service to our nation.

For the past six years I have served as active duty in the United States Navy. During that time I have celebrated five Veteran’s Days, all of which were marked by an outpouring of thanks from relatives and friends and associates. Almost everything said on Veteran’s Day boils down to one phrase.

“Thank you for your service.”

Many people may never say this again until Memorial Day or 4th of July comes around. Some people say it every day. I cannot speak for everyone who has served or is serving now but I have heard this statement far more often than just on federal holidays. More often than not it is police officers and TSA agents (many of whom are veterans themselves) who thank me for my service.

For six years I have never had a good answer. Usually it is an awkward smile, or a mumbled reply that doesn’t make any sense. I have never known how to answer because nothing felt right.

I am scheduled to leave active duty December 16th, 2013. As such I have been giving a lot of thought to life after the military, life as a veteran. It has been a time for reflection on the past six years as well, looking back on who I was then and who I am now and everything in between.

During that reflection I have found the answer that eluded me during my time in service. I cannot speak for everyone but I believe I can speak for most: Thank you for your support.

While I may not be on a ship for months at a time, stationed halfway around the globe, or on the ground in Afghanistan, life in the military is fundamentally different than life as a civilian, even if it’s someone working at a desk on a base somewhere. Without the support of family, friends and sometimes the kindness of complete strangers, life in the US armed forces would be much more difficult, especially for those at sea, far from home or boots on the ground in a foreign land. The same can be said of military spouses and families, theirs is a unique life as well.

So I would like to say it again, on behalf of all service members, past and present.

Thank you for your support. It means everything.